Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

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Probiotics and Prebiotics

diagram of a human digestive system

diagram of a human digestive system (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Probiotics are “good” bacteria that help keep your digestive system healthy by controlling growth of harmful bacteria. Prebiotics are carbohydrates that cannot be digested by the human body. They are food for probiotics. The primary benefit of probiotics and prebiotics appears to be helping you maintain a healthy digestive system. There is no food that contains both but it is advisable to provide both together in the diet or take a supplement containing both.

One of the best sources of probiotics is yogurt. It has good bacteria like Lactobacillus or Bifidobacteria,  shown to be able to moderately withstand stomach acid.  Look for “live or active cultures” on the label to be sure your favorite brand of yogurt is a rich source of probiotics.  Other good food sources are sauerkraut, miso soup, fermented, soft cheeses (like Gouda), and even sourdough bread. The common feature of all these foods is fermentation, a process that produces probiotics.  Foods rich in prebiotics include asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes, bananas, oatmeal, and legumes.

Taking probiotics with food or with dairy products may help to lessen the destructive effects of stomach acid  before they reach the small and large intestines. Food and dairy products help to buffer the stomach acid to a reasonable pH so that the highest  possible  number of probiotic organisms can survive.



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It’s Still All Fast Food

Fast Food

Fast Food (Photo credit: Awais JIBRAN)

The fast food industry seems to be trending toward more quality and healthier choices when it comes to consumer acceptance.  This sounds like good news but we must go further and demand menu choices with less sodium, fat, and sugar and still taste good.  Quite an order, but there is hope?



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In some countries, milk and cereal grains are ...

In some countries, milk and cereal grains are fortified with vitamin D. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

How much do you know about vitamins and minerals?  Do you know how to find them in foods and how much you need.  A recent report says that fortified foods may pose some health risks by providing too many of them at toxic levels especially in children.  Take the quiz below and check the answers below.


1.  Which of the following vitamins is water-soluble?  Circle all that apply.

a. vitamin A

b. vitamin C

c. vitamin B6

d. vitamin K

e. folic acid


2. Vitamin D is:

a. a hormone

b. made in your body with the help of sunight

c. found in fortified milk

d. all of the above

e. a and b only

3. You are enjoying a salad bar lunch.  You want to top your greens with vitamin-E rich foods.  You could choose:

a. olive and vinegar

b. chopped nuts

c.  avocado slices

d. all of the above

e. none of the above

4.  Beta-carotene is converted to which vitamin in the body?

a.  niacin

b.  riboflavin

c.  vitamin A

d.  vitamin K

e.  none of the above

5. A deficiency of niacin can cause:

a. rickets

b. beriberi

c. pellagra

d. scurvy

e. osteomalacia

6.  Which of the following are considered antioxidants?

a.  vitamin E

b.  vitamin K

c.  beta-carotene

d.  all of the above

e.  a and c only

7.  You are 55 years old (hypothetically) Which of the following would you might have trouble absorbing?

a.  The vitamin B12 in a piece of steak .

b. The vitamin B6 in liver.

c. The folate in spinach.

d.  The riboflavin in milk.

e.  The thiamin in bread.

8.  You are having raisin bran cereal with skim milk and a glass of orange juice for breakfast. The vitamin C in the orange juice will enhance the absorption of:

a.  the  calcium in milk

b. the vitamin D in fortified milk

c.  the iron in the cereal

d.  none of the above

e.  a and b only

9.  Folic acid can help reduce the risk of:

a.  acne

b.  neural tube defects

c.  night blindness

d. osteoporosis

e.  none of the above

10.  The USP seal on a supplement label means that it has been tested and show to:

a.  be free of contaminants .

b.  be manufactured using safe and sanitary procedures.

c.  contain the amount of the substance that is stated on the label.

d. all of the above.

e. a and b only.


1.  (b, c, e) Vitamins A and K are fat-soluble.

2.  (d)

3.  (d) Go for all of them.

4.  (c)  Beta-carotene is a provitamin found in yellow-red pigments in fruits and vegetables.

5.  (c)

6.  (e)  Vitamin K helps blood to clot.

7.  (a)  Some people over 50 have  reduced stomach acid required for B12 absorption.

8.  (c)  Vitamin D can help calcium absorption

9.  (b)  Need to consume prior to and first few weeks of pregnancy.

10. (d)









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Will We Have Enough to Eat?

Cover of January, 1915 National Geographic Mag...

Cover of January, 1915 National Geographic Magazine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


I just finished reading the excellent article, “The New Food Revolution” in the current National Geographic (May 2014).  It presents some interesting but very scary facts about the increasing global population and the food supply by 2050.  It poses the question: “Where will we find enough food for 9 billion people?”

Some highlights

  • Agriculture is among the greatest contributors to global warming (aka climate change).
    • When we think about threats to the environment, we tend to picture cars and smokestacks, not dinner.
    • Agriculture in its present state poses the biggest danger to the planet environmentally.  That includes pollution, biodiversity, our lakes, rivers,  coastal ecosystems and water supplies.
    • We have cleared vast areas of grassland and rain forests for farms losing crucial habitats for wildlife.
    • Most of our grain production is used to feed cattle, pigs, and chickens and the demand for meat is growing even in developing countries.

The article proposes five steps that could help solve the world’s food dilemma.  These are presented in the accompanying video.  CLICK HERE

What can we all do personally by using simple steps?

  • Serve smaller portions
  • Eat leftovers to reduce food waste
  • Encourage restaurants, cafeterias, and supermarkets to develop waste-reducing measures.
  • Become more thoughtful about the food we eat and where it comes from.
  • Make connections with farmers and food.

You can go to to get daily food news, videos, blogs, interactive graphics, photos, and food facts of the day.  This blog (Food, Facts, and Fads)  will also be expanding on this timely topic from time to time.



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Fda (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


HAVE YOU EVER READ THE WHOLE INGREDIENT LIST ON A FOOD PRODUCT? Not a fun thing to do, is it? What are all these ingredients and what do they do for us? Why are they used?


  • Many are used to impart or maintain a desired consistency, for example, alginates, carrageenen, mono-and diglycerides, methyl cellulose, pectin
  • Some improve/maintain nutritive value such as vitamin C, calcium carbonate, folic acid, B vitamins, iron, vitamins A and D, and zinc oxide.
  • Others maintain palatability and wholesomeness. Examples include BHA, BHT, citric acid, propionic acid, sodium nitrite and vitamin E to help
    prevent rancidity.
  • Some produce light textures and control acidity/alkalinity such as citric acid, fumaric acid, lactic acid, phosphoric acid, sodium bicarbonate, tartrates and yeast.
  • Others enhance flavor or provide desired color such as aspartame, caramel, cloves, FD&C red No 40, FD&C blue No. 1, fructose, ginger, limonene, MSG, tumeric.


The Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 gave the FDA authority to regulate food and food ingredients. The 1958 Food Additives Amendment further mandated that manufacturers provide documentation that the food additive is safe and to obtain prior approval for its use in a food.


In 1958, all food additives used in the U.S. and considered safe at that time were put on a “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) list. These additives either had a long history of being safe to consume or had documented research verifying its safety, These additives included salt, sugar, spices, vitamins among others. Since that time, some substances have been reviewed and removed from the list such as cyclamate and red dye #3 due to their link to cancer. Many of the GRAS chemicals have not yet been rigorously tested primarily due to cost.


Most nutrition sources proclaim the use of food additives is strictly regulated by the FDA. This does not seem to be the case.   Safety requires testing on at least two animal species and scientists determine the highest dose of the additive that produces no observable effects in the animals. Many of the GRAS chemicals have not yet been rigorously tested primarily due to cost. Recently a new paper discussed how lax this regulation is and that some companies are using additive quietly on a “self-determined” GRAS list with any testing or approval from the FDA




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Food Supermarket 4

Food Supermarket 4 (Photo credit: eltpics)

OH MY!!!  If the USA could only have these guidelines instead of the current ones.  They make so much sense, don’t they?  I have my doubts that will happen here due to the food industry lobbies and the emphasis on profit and often misleading advertising about the foods we eat.  If consumers would be more involved in decisions about the food supply, maybe things could change in a couple of years.  Consumers have made differences before and the food industry listens (sometimes).   You can file comments on the 2015 Dietary Guidelines here.

For  the Brazilian guidelines:


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The Meat Market – Shame on Tyson

Meat market

Meat market (Photo credit: State Library of Victoria Collections)

This is an interesting site – check it out if you’re interested in our food supply (in this case meat)  and how it operates.  I am ordering the book, The Meat Market by Christopher Leonard.  The events are live on the dates presented.  They are lengthy but you can choose your time and watch as long or as little as you want to.


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The Scoop on Potassium

A medical student checking blood pressure usin...

A medical student checking blood pressure using a sphygmomanometer and stethoscope. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Everyone talks so much about the sodium content of our diets and for good reason, we consume way  too much of the stuff.  Here are some numbers:

  • 3500 mg = American adult daily consumption.
  • 2300 mg = Adult upper level
  • 1500 mg = Adult recommended daily intake
  • 180 mg = Adult needed daily intake

About 12% of Americans’ consumption of sodium is from foods in which it occurs naturally such as fruits, vegetables, milk, meat, fish, poultry and legumes.  Another 5% gets added during cooking and another 6% is used to season food at the table.

Processed foods contribute a hefty 77% of the sodium in the American diet.  Comparing the amount of sodium in a fresh tomato (11 mg) to the amount found in a cup of canned tomatoes (355 milligrams) dramatically illustrates just how much more sodium is found in processed foods.

Sometimes adding more potassium to the diet will offset the “upside-down) sodium/potassium ratio that is recommended.  In other words, we consume way too much sodium and way too little potassium.  Potassium is needed in the body for:

  • Muscle contraction and nerve impulse conduction including your heart.  Too much can cause irregular heartbeats and too little can cause paralysis.  For this reason, potassium is tightly controlled in the body with the help of the kidneys.
  • Potassium can help lower blood pressure, especially in salt-sensitive people who respond more to sodium’s blood pressure raising capabilities. Potassium causes the kidneys to excrete excess sodium thus keeping sodium levels low.
  • Potassium can help bone health by keeping bone-strengthening minerals calcium and phosphorus from being lost from the bones.  Potassium also helps reduce the risk of kidney stones by helping the body excrete citrate, a compound that combines with calcium to form kidney stones.

How much do we need?  Adults should consume 4700 mg of potassium a day.  Since Americans fall far short of eating fruits and vegetables,  adult females consume only 2200 to 2500 mg of potassium and adult males consume only 3300 to 3400 mg daily, on average.

Several researchers reviewed published studies on the topic and concluded that if Americans were to boost their potassium intake, adult cases of high blood pressure could fall by more than 10%.  The findings were published in The Journal of Clinical Hypertension, July 2008.  High blood pressure is the chief reason for visits  to physicians and for prescriptions written in the U.S.  In societies that consume a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, hypertension affects a mere 1% of the population. In contrast, in societies consuming larger amounts of processed foods, one out of every three adults has hypertension.

There are no known dangers from consuming too much potassium from foods; it will be excreted in the urine.  However, taking supplements or salt substitutes can cause hyperkalemia (too much potassium) in the blood which can cause irregular heartbeats, heart damage and be life-threatening.

How to add potassium to your diet:

  •  Pour a glass of a citrus juice (orange or grapefruit) for breakfast to get a potassium boost. Have a banana as a breakfast fruit or for a snack.
  • Add leafy greens to all of your sandwiches; spinach is an especially good source.
  • Add a spoonful of walnuts to yogurt for potassium, both from the nuts and the dairy.
  • Have bean soup with a sandwich for lunch.
  • Baked regular or sweet potatoes are great sources as a side dish for dinner.
  • Other great sources are squash, tomatoes, carrots, apricots, prunes, melons, peaches, fish such as halibut, tuna cod,  trout and  lean pork.
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Food Addict?

Position of the nucleus accumbens and Ventral ...

Position of the nucleus accumbens and Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The idea that food (at least some types) are addictive has been debated  for quite a while and up to now mostly rejected by both nutrition and addiction researchers.  Based on some recent research however, it is being discussed more seriously that food and drug addictions have much in common in how they affect parts of the brain associated with pleasure and self control.

What’s the evidence?  Studies from Princeton and the U. of Florida found that when rats were allowed to binge on sugar and then the sugar was taken away, they showed opiate-like withdrawal symptoms including teeth chattering, forepaw tremors and the shakes.

There is a paradigm called the conditioned place preference.  Rats are given a choice between two rooms and the rats become familiar with both of them.  For example, inside one room, the rat is given injections of morphine or cocaine and in the other room, he/she is given a placebo of injected saline. Guess which room the rats hung out in most of the time – of course, the drug room – they had learned to prefer the effects of this room compared to the other (boring) room. This phenomenon continued even after the injections were discontinued.

In a study based on this paradigm at Connecticut College last year, rats were trained with Oreos in one room and in the other boring rice cakes.  They spent just as much time in the Oreo room as they had spent in the cocaine or morphine room in previous studies.  After that experiment they examined the nucleus accumbens (a part of the brain’s pleasure center).  They measured the expression of a protein located there (c-Fos) that  tells us when that brain center has been turned on or not in response to a behavior.  They found  a greater number of neurons that were activated in the nucleus accumbens in rats given the Oreos compared to animals conditioned to cocaine or morphine.  This raised the question – do foods high in fats and/or sugar affect the brain in the same way as addictive drugs?

In a study published in Nature Neuroscience (2010), rats that spent 40 days eating bacon, sausage, cheesecakes and frosting became addicted by continuing to eat despite given electric shocks.  Rats who were not addicted did not.

So much for the rats. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition looked at how food intake is associated with dopamine-containing pleasure centers in the brain. Dr. David Ludwig from Boston Children’s Hospital  and colleagues measured blood glucose levels and hunger and used MRI brain scans to look at brain activity during a four-hour period after a meal.  This time span helps to influence eating behavior at the next meal.

Two identical milkshakes in calories, taste and sweetness were  given to 12 overweight or obese men.  One of the milkshakes contained a high-glycemic carbohydrate causing a rapid rise in blood glucose; the other contained a low-glycemic carbohydrate that takes longer to digest, thus a slower-acting blood glucose response.

When the volunteers consumed the high-glycemic shake, they experienced an initial surge in blood glucose levels that was followed by a sharp decline four hours later. The subjects also became extremely hungry.  Brain scans showed activation of the nucleus accumbens  which is also triggered by addictive drugs and even behaviors like gambling.  These results may help to explain why some people overeat (however, all obese people do not exhibit this behavior) and provides a biological reason rather than just blame it on a lack of willpower.

Dr. Ludwig said: “Beyond reward and craving, this part of the brain is also linked with substance abuse and dependence, which raises the question as to whether certain foods might be addictive.  These findings suggest that limiting high-glycemic foods such as white bread and potatoes could help obese people reduce cravings and control the urge to overeat”.

Dr. William Davis, writing in “Wheat Belly (a provocative book) has also proposed the theory that wheat is addictive. But remember, diet books often make bold statements to help them sell.  He makes many claims that often are not supported by proper references, in my opinion.

From his  book:  “ It has been known for a century that opiates, when administered to lab animals and humans increase appetite.  It was discovered about 30 years ago that the gliadin protein of wheat is, in effect, an opiate, as it yields digestive breakdown products that bind to the opiate receptors of the brain.”
For a critical review of this book:


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